A Grizzly Bear and A Grizzly Man: The Revenant

DiCaprio and Hardy can navigate the American backwoods, but can they navigate the academy awards?
Director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñarritu, the craftsman behind 2014’s filmic juggernaut, Birdman, has forged yet another piece of theatrical tungsten.  The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, succeeds in screening the resilience and conviction in the narrative of the lionhearted man of both American history and folklore, Hugh Glass.  The untamed North American wilderness refined by Iñarritu’s innovations in contemporary visual storytelling ensure The Revenant will be a title that lingers upon your Oscars-tuned television screen come February 28th.

Director Iñarritu has a knack for presenting the underbellies of his subjects and The Revenant is no exception. While the dialogue is minimal, a remarkable cast deliver every line deeply and momentously rooted in the soil of the film’s narrative arc.

As he continues to step beyond conventionally styled Hollywood film, it is clear that The Revenant is just the next stride for Iñarritu as an auteur with his cadence of camera direction and narrative themes previously seen in films Birdman (2014), Babel (2006), and Biutiful (2010).  In a single long-take tracking shot, he contrasts the vast surrounding environment with an extreme close-ups of a character’s eyes, stitching together the chaotic emotions and circumstances of the character. that steps beyond conventionally styled Hollywood film.

Iñarritu efficiently introduces the physical iconography of his characters, but their social standings within their environments as well.  A riverside campground is an all but temporary home to a band of a few dozen mountainous fur trappers on a contract job to trap and sell North American fur pelts.  The first shift of perspective here lies in the both physical and cultural distance between Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and the mountain men.  Glass and his half-native Pawnee son, Hawk (played by Forrest Goodluck) hunt a moose some distance from the encampment, communicating with one another in the native Pawnee tongue.

This camp soon comes under attack by a Native American Pawnee tribe, resulting in the slaughter of all but a few trappers.  Glass and Hawk rush back through the trees to aid the others. With a single tracking shot, Iñarritu grants the audience a myriad of perspectives—trappers, the attacking Pawnee, and Glass—telling the story of this single scene in the voices of all parties involved.  These gorgeous sweeping shots smoothly alternate between character perspectives, subsequently coalescing the characters to their environment. This alternating of perspectives and the rapid movements of the camera’s position not only ensure that the cinematic form matches the tempo of the characters’ emotions, but too diligently acquaints the audience with the space of the scene.  Instead of becoming hopelessly lost in the gory fray of arrows and musket balls, audience members remain effortlessly engaged.  Scenes such as this, which certainly do not lack in regularity, are at the apex of this film’s cinematic reach.

Where The Revenant’s footsteps are rendered shaky is at its dichotomy of Glass’ insatiability in living a life without vengeance and his social being that transcends the time’s violent cultural intolerances.  We must question whether or not he is a man of the righteous, or simply one to take an eye for an eye regardless of the cultural connotation at hand.  He is the grey area that lies between tolerance and intolerance—the white man with Native American familial and lingual bondage. However, perhaps his mantra, “I’m going to kill the man that killed my son,” is a step towards some semblance of equality within this world—to seek vengeance not on the behalf of white Americans, nor the native Pawnee, but for the sake of upholding the general principles of the time—the law of the lawless. This is not to say that Iñarritu does not make a valid attempt at addressing such issues of tolerance and race, but the ambiguity of Glass’ moral compass causes such attempts to ultimately fall flat.

Cinematically, the natural surroundings, the grizzly bear and grizzly men, and the empowering quest for life in the face of certain death are all limbs that climb a ladder to the upper echelon of achievements in visual art.  We will soon see if DiCaprio and co-star Tom Hardy’s navigating of the Academy Awards is truly the final frontier.

Grade: A-

The Revenant is rated “R,” graphic in its depiction of violence, language, sexual assault and is in theaters now.

Image Via 20th Century Fox